When two police detectives entered the accounting department, everyone looked up. They quickly returned to work.
Head of accounting, Cynthia, bid Penelope Grass into her office.
Once inside, Penelope said, “I want a lawyer.”
The cops looked at each other. Cynthia stared at her desk, shaking her head.
Detective Stiles said, “We have a few questions, Ms. Grass. No one’s making accusations.”
“Talk to Shelly, in HR. She deserves a grilling.”
The detective’s talk with Shelly had led them to Penelope. Shelly described Penelope’s histrionics at Chad’s promotion over her. She also suggested other reasons Penelope might want Chad’s gone.
That morning, the company CEO, Mark Bennings, arrived at Accounting, planning to present Chad the annual Employee of the Year plaque, and a bonus check. Members of the board stood by. A staff photographer planned to document the presentation. It was a big deal.
Confused, Bennings told Cynthia, “Must be the wrong department. Paperwork snafu… you know. I’ll check with Shelly.”
He left embarrassed and confused that no one knew Chad. “He’s our star employee, damn it. Doesn’t ‘Employee of the Year’ mean anything?”
Penelope became defensive toward the detectives. “How could I make him disappear? He never worked here. How’s he up for EoY?”
Cynthia confirmed her statement. The cops looked at the other employees, busy working.
“No one suggested you ‘made anyone disappear,’ Ms. Grass. We only want to talk. Do you suspect foul play?”
Cynthia caught her eye. Penelope saw the need to tone it down. “How can anyone ‘suspect foul play’ when the person doesn’t exist?” Det. Bowden wrote on his pad of paper.
Det. Stiles stepped into the cubicle farm and called for attention. He displayed a photograph of Chad dancing at last autumn’s Holiday party. His dance partner appeared to be Penelope.
“Excuse me… Has anyone seen this man?” No response. “Has anyone ever met him?” Crickets.
Only Penelope had heard of Chad. And she, only because he’d been promoted to a position she expected. And believed she’d earned.
“He’s never been here. How could he have seniority?”
“Please come to the conference room, where we can talk in confidence?”
Penelope followed the detectives under protest. One pulled out her chair while the other shut the door. They sat across the table from her.
Officer Stiles slid a three ring binder to Penelope. Glassine protectors contained photos featuring Chad at various company functions.
Stiles pointed to the one of Chad dancing. “Here he’s at your Holiday party. Is his partner, by any chance, you?”
Penelope sat back and smiled. “That is so cute. I’ll be honest. I danced a lot that night. I admit I can’t recall everyone I danced with. But I have no doubt, I did not dance with Chad. I know, because I’ve never met him. He wasn’t there that night. Have either of you heard of Photoshop?”
Neither detective responded.
Penelope chuckled. “If I may, I might find that picture in my Facebook album.” She fiddled with her phone. “I’m sorry. You guys just want the facts, right?” She continued swiping. Her eyes lit up. “Found it!”
Penelope held her phone for them to see the identical picture. But the subject, wearing the same sharp suit, looked nothing like Chad.
She gained confidence. “Anything else?”
“And this picture couldn’t be Photo-shopped?”
She shrugged. “Don’t you find it curious? Our Employee of the Year is a non-entity? Has anyone met him?”
Stiles nodded to Bowden who produced a sheaf of papers.
“Can you explain these, found in Chad’s locker?”
“Chad has a locker? Who knew?” She scanned the papers while shaking her head. Reading subdued her. “I didn’t write these. These are supposed to be ‘love letters’? Anyone could type them up and put my name on the bottom.”
The police stared silently.
Returning to the letters, she stifled a laugh.
“Oh my god! Is this a joke?”
Neither detective laughed.
“Would you want to receive these? What idiot writes about their mother in a love letter? And ramen? Please… No wonder he’s invisible.”
Bowden wrote in his pad.
“Guys, it doesn’t make sense. First you suspect me of ‘foul play.’ And then I’m emailing him love letters? Which is it?”
Stiles leaned in, “What do you think?”
She slid the letters back to Bowden.
Bowden suggested, “Unrequited love?”
Penelope laughed. “Unrequited? That must be it. He doesn’t exist, so someone must be frustrated when he doesn’t respond. They needn’t make him disappear, though...” She clapped her hands to the sides of her head. “Because he doesn’t exist!”
The detectives blanched at her outburst. Stiles checked his gun.
Penelope reeled it in. “You might want to find whose email generated these. Because they’re not mine.”
“Thank you, Ms. Grass. That’ll be all for now. We may have more questions later.”
“I have a question, if I may…” Stiles nodded. “There must be a money trail. Chad works here? Where do his checks go? Does he pay taxes? Social security?” She leaned in. “If he’s a ghost, that money’s filling someone’s pocket.”
The men looked at each other.
“I know a good accountant if you need one.”
Stiles and Bowden remained stone faced as they packed their things. Stiles nodded to Penelope.
“We’ll be in touch. Don’t leave town.”
In the lobby, Bowden nudged Stiles.
“What do you think?”
Stiles glanced around for privacy. “She made some interesting points.”
“We’re looking at fraud. You can chalk it up to nerves, but she brings up foul play…”
“Yeah, why so defensive?”
“Perps don’t know when to shut up.”
They returned to the elevators and pushed the ‘UP’ button.
They got back to HR, as Shelly came out of her office carrying her purse and a jacket.
“Oh, hi… How did it go?”
“We have a few more questions. Are you leaving?”
“Just for lunch. I only have an hour, you know. They keep me on a pretty short leash. You have no idea how many meetings…”
“Since we’re here. If we could…”
Shelly tried to hide her frustration. “Sure. Of course. Let’s go in here.”
She pulled a paper off her office door as she passed through it.
Stiles asked. “What’s that paper?”
“I don’t know. They’re always taping stuff up. Parties, baby showers… you know.”
Bowden reached out. “May I see it?”
Shelly rolled her eyes and handed the crumpled paper to him. He opened it to see a picture of Chad and a solicitation to contribute, on his behalf, to a ‘GoFundMe.’
Shelly sat at her desk. “I haven’t read it. What’s it about?”
“Someone is worried about Chad.”
“The whole company is…” She held a kerchief and dabbed her eyes.
“May we keep this?”
“We’re surprised no one seems to know Chad. Only you and Penelope. And she claims she never met him.”
“Never met…? Did you read those letters?”
“We need his employment dox. His application, annual reviews…”
Shelly threw her belongings over a chair and went to the file cabinets. After flipping through several files she slammed the drawer.
“What am I doing? I’m in such a hurry, I completely forgot. Once a new hire clears probation, each department keeps the documentation.”
“So, Chad’s info would be in…”
“You don’t keep copies?”
“I thought so. I can’t seem to locate… We should. Changes always come from on high.” Shelly gazed at the ceiling. Then glanced at her watch. “Damn...!” She opened a drawer. “I’m sorry. It’s not you, but the time.” She put a cellophane wrapped package of ramen on her desk. “I’ll have to eat in.” She emptied a water jug into her mini-coffee maker and flipped the switch. “…My little kitchen, away from home. You understand. You have more questions? I’d ask you to join me…”
Stiles shook his head. “That’ll do, Shelly. Sorry we disrupted your schedule. We’ll talk.”
The detectives left.
The next day, Stiles and Bowden returned to HR, bearing a search warrant, and with backup.
Shelly said, “Take what you want. You’ll answer to Bennings. I have a meeting…”
Bowden blocked her exit.
Stiles said, “We have more questions.” She balked. “Would you rather go downtown?”
“Fine. I’ve missed meetings before. They’ll understand. You need my help.”
The other officers boxed files. Bowden and Stiles followed Shelly into her office.
“Please don’t touch your computer. We’ll be taking that for analysis.”
Bowden asked about her first interview with Chad, before she hired him. Stiles pressed her about how Chad collected a paycheck, for years, without ever coming to work. Yet no one missed him.
None of Shelly’s answers held up. She felt cornered.
“What can you tell us about the joint checking account? Bearing your name, and Chad’s?”
Shelly stared at her desk.
“Does Chad know about it? The bank has no record of his accessing it. His signature line is blank… No checks from him… Only deposits…”
Shelly wept. “Stop! You’re right. I’ve done something horrible. I took his money… hired him but didn’t tell him. Directed his pay to my account… that account.”
“And the GoFundMe…?”
“The what? Oh, no… I know nothing about that. I…”
“You’re its beneficiary.”
“I am? But I… I’m so confused… It’s shameful. What would my mother…?”
Stiles and Bowden observed her and wrote.
“You have to believe me. I didn’t… I never hurt… I wouldn’t… Couldn’t…”
A man stepped into the doorway. Shelly’s mouth dropped open.
Turning, Stiles said, “What’d you find…?”
Shelly said, “Hi Chad…”
“Sorry to interrupt… Shelly, right? Remember me?”
“Yes. We were just talking about you… You’ve been missed.”
“I heard about a fund? On the radio… I’m supposedly missing?” No one spoke. “Anyway, I’m here.”
After a certain amount of confusion, Shelly was arrested under suspicion of fraud. She went willingly.
In the car, Shelly said, “I overstepped. Nominating him was silly.”
Bowden said, “Fraud isn’t silly. You confessed to a serious crime…”
“I meant, compared to murder…”
Stiles said, “We never suggested a murder had been perpetrated.”
Back in Accounting, everyone had left but Penelope, who stayed late to finish paperwork. So much confusion the last few days.
She looked up to see Chad smiling at her.
He said, “So, I work here after all.” She smiled. “They’re talking about back pay.”
“Lawsuits are icky.”
“I don’t think EoY will cut it though.” Penelope laughed. “But the GoFundMe… Thanks.”
“You deserve it.”
“I hear HR has an opening.”
Penelope sighed. “Thanks. I’ll pass.”
Chad leaned into her cubicle. “We still on for tonight?”
She touched her lips, signaling for silence, and winked. “Of course. Usual time?” He nodded. “We shouldn’t be seen talking.”
Chad nodded. “Got it. Catch you later.”
He left her alone. Humming, Penelope filed some papers. She settled back in her chair and smiled.